Last dame standing
BIOGRAPHY:DECLAN HUGHES reviews A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman By Alice Kessler-Harris Bloomsbury, 440pp. £25
IN 1976 you didn’t need to see the 71-year-old playwright staring out of the famous Blackglama mink-clothing advertisement, complete with fur coat, cigarette and the strapline “What becomes a legend most?” to understand this woman was some kind of literary phenomenon. A simple glance along the shelves of the cooler sort of bookshop was sufficient to spot her volumes of memoirs. Skirting Aleister Crowley and Anaïs Nin, navigating Richard Brautigan and Hunter S Thompson, there she was, snug between Knut Hamsun and Hermann Hesse: Lillian Hellman, the last dame standing.
How had a writer whose first play had been a Broadway hit in 1934, whose contemporaries were all in the grave or in their anecdotage, managed to enjoy this vital second, nay, third act in an extraordinary American life?
The long answer is: by working hard and living well in public for 40 years. Even after her death the decline in visibility that other writers invariably experience simply never happened to Hellman. Of the plays, The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes have entered the repertoire and are regularly revived. Flawed they may be, often schematic and overemphatic, but in the language of the theatre they work, giving actors parts to chew on and an audience a satisfying night out.
The Autumn Garden and Toys in the Attic, with their more subtle, Chekhovian manner, still have their outings. An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento hold up well, despite what we know about their often not even tenuous relationship with reality. Scoundrel Time’s pungent mixture of political finger-pointing and self-aggrandising fantasy probably did more at one stroke to undermine her reputation than anything else, but it certainly kept her name alive.
And, of course, her relationship with the great hardboiled crime writer Dashiell Hammett (burnished into overcooked myth by Hellman herself to such an extent that Gore Vidal was driven to ask if anyone had actually ever seen them together) seemed to stand with the partnership of Sartre and De Beauvoir as a model for a new kind of sexual freedom and egalitarianism between the sexes. Joan Mellen, whose 1996 joint biography Hellman and Hammett remains the definitive work on both writers, took as her epigraph an entry from Isaac Babel’s diary of 1920: “We are the vanguard, but of what?”
The short answer to the mystery of Hellman’s longevity is, of course: by lying. “Every word [Hellman] says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’,” said Mary McCarthy on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, and, had Hellman not died before the suit she brought came to court, it is difficult not to believe she would have been humiliated.
Not that her reputation has survived in any great health; indeed, the avowed intention of Alice Kessler-Harris’s book, which she describes as a historical rather than a literary biography, is to rescue her from critics and friends alike, using Hellman as a Rorschach test, “a lightning rod for the anger, fear and passion that divided American intellectuals and activists from each other”.